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Getting a Baby to Sleep in His Crib

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Q: My nephew, who recently turned one, naps on my sister's lap and sleeps with his parents. My sister and her husband want to get him into his crib, but he will cry for three or more hours at a time and each day it gets worse. Help, this problem is interfering with their marriage!

A: Co-sleeping with babies varies so much according to people's cultural ways. In some societies, children sleep with parents for the first few years and this seems comfortable emotionally for everyone. However, when babies have not learned some developmentally mature ways to get themselves to sleep, that may be worrisome. For example, baby needs to learn how to pop a thumb into his mouth and settle himself down to drowsiness. Or baby has a special "lovey," a light blanket or a small teddy, and when he snuggles with the lovey, he can more easily drift into sleep (or back to sleep if he wakes at night). If the baby does not have a lovey yet, start with a small cloth diaper maybe that the parent carries on a shoulder as a spit-up cloth and that will remind baby and smell of intimate body contact.

When a baby sleeps exclusively in the parental bed, then surely this interferes with the parents' needs for intimacy or to read in bed companionably to unwind after a busy day. Thus, there are lots of reasons for your sister and her husband to try slowly and in small stages to get your nephew used to and comfortable with crib sleeping. I suggest that naptime might be a good time to start. Baby gets so sleepy after a nursing or a good meal. Gently put him in his crib with his "lovey" right against his cheek. Also, baby may need to smell something of mom's or dad's to feel secure, such as a pillowcase.

He should be able to drift into sleep with a full tummy. If necessary, his mom can sit by the crib and rub his back rhythmically and slowly, or pat his back with reassuring pats over and over. As baby gradually realizes that she will stay with him until he drifts into sleep, he may not cry from the distress and the alien feeling that this is too different a way to get to sleep from the lap he is used to.

Mom and dad will need to be patient. Change is hard for babies. They need to sit on a chair near the baby's crib and chant soothingly, and in a low, crooning tone, "ah ah ah ah baby" over and over and over. This low croon, together with patting, may work more easily to get baby to sleep. They need to be sure to put the baby to sleep in the crib when he is really very tired and has had lots of exercise and fresh air.

Also, your sister needs to think calmly about why she has the baby nap on her lap rather than in a crib. Has she been anxious perhaps after reading about "sudden crib death" in an article? This is so rare, and especially rare after the first few months of life. Her son needs to learn the developmental task of getting himself to sleep. He also has to feel how much is treasured and loved by each parent. But that does not mean he needs to nap on mama's lap! His crib is a safe and special place for sleep time.

About the Author

Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. She is the author of Secure Relationships: Nurturing Infant-Toddler Attachments in Early Care Settings.

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